Last weekend I was in my friend Nina’s bright, airy kitchen, taking in the expansive view of the Hudson River out the back window, when she motioned me over to the kitchen table. ”Please sit down,” she said. In front of me, there was a small pile of cookbooks, some old Gourmet magazines, and a well-loved, yellowed recipe booklet that once belonged to her grandmother. Nina handed me a pad of paper and a pencil. She took a seat next to me and said, “I feel like maybe I should be lying on a couch.”
Her 9-year-old came bounding into the kitchen and thanked me — unprompted! — for the meal Andy cooked for him at our house the night before. We laughed. We talked about last night. He left and she turned to me again, a serious look on her face.
“OK, Nina,” I said. ” What seems to be the problem?”
She took a deep breath. “I just can’t get organized when it comes to grocery shopping” she said. “I really need help.”
Because of my line of “work,” I seem to land myself in these kinds of dinner heart-to-hearts all the time. I imagine my friend Kate, a psychologist and the world’s best listener, helping her friends through stress and anxiety and deeply personal issues, offering them comforting advice with phrases like “That’s normalizing.” Not me. My patients’ issues — at least as they present themselves to me — tend to center more on pork chops and grocery lists. Last year, at pick-up, a mother of three approached me and said “I get angry – really angry, when my kids say they don’t like the food I’ve spent time cooking for them.” She paused then added, “Sometimes I have to get up and walk away from the table.” About a gazillion times a month I hear this complaint: “We eat the same things week after week. I can’t seem to break out of the rut!” Last year, after a book talk I gave at a local school, a mother asked me: “What do you do if you don’t know how to make sauce?”
But of all the issues that can face a dinner-maker — no time, no skills, no inspiration, no help with the cooking — Nina has the big one down: Family dinner is the house default mode. She and her husband (who both work from home) and their two kids sit down to a meal together every night.
“What are you so worried about?!” I told her. “That’s the hardest part to nail!”
She didn’t quite see it that way. “I guess. But I never have a plan when I go shopping,” she told me. “I never seem to have what I need to improvise.” She led me to her pantry and, Vanna-White-style, swept her arm across the shelves. There were three full bags of panko breadcrumbs, about a dozen bags of pecans. Nina told me she hits the supermarket once a week for the kids’ school lunch and breakfast staples, but on that shop doesn’t ever think about dinner ingredients. “Honestly,” she told me, “I don’t really think about dinner until the moment I’m standing in front of my refrigerator at 6:00.”
I had a sudden urge to rewrite the first line of Anna Karenina: Every unhappy family dinner-maker is unhappy in his or her own way. But instead I started scribbling some strategies that I wanted her to put into play immediately.
Strategy 1: Think about dinner before you have to make it. It’s not exactly breaking news, but if the goal is to make dinner something to look forward to — as opposed to one more task in between “pay taxes” and “schedule root canal” on the to-do list — you need to plan ahead. And planning ahead comes in all shapes and sizes. It means on Sunday, you look at the schedule for the upcoming week to determine which nights are going to be home-cooked meal nights and which ones are going to be storebought dinner nights. (And which ones are going to be Moo Shu pork in front of American Idol.) It means on a Monday or Tuesday morning taking two minutes to ask yourself: What can my 8:00am self do to help my 6:00pm self? Marinate something. Chop something. At the very least, decide on something. Get the momentum going.
Strategy 2: Try something new once a week. Nina’s kids eat almost any meat and love salmon, but they don’t love things mixed together, and could use some help expanding their vegetable repertoires. We looked in my upcoming book for some salmon recipes that were familiar to the boys, but different enough to feel like she was busting a rut. We also looked for interesting ways to upgrade the vegetables so the grown-ups could get a little more joy out of the steamed broccoli. I always feel like the trick to trying something new is to introduce it gradually — and preferably when there’s something else on the plate that is universally loved and embraced.
Strategy 3: Give yourself at least one From-the-Freezer night. Whether it’s thawing something homemade or chucking in the storebought default dinner you picked up at Trader Joe’s. Nina’s go-to in this situation is Trader Joe’s Mandarin Chicken. (Note to self: That stuff looks goood.) Don’t put pressure on yourself to cook something from scratch every night of the week. I don’t have to remind Nina, a sustainability consultant, that the name of the game is to create a sustainable dinner system.
Strategy 4: Be your own sous chef. Make something on the weekend (or at least a Sunday dinner) that can carry over to one meal during the week. It doesn’t even have to be a bolognese — though that would be nice. Even a five-minute homemade salad dressing will end up yielding some seriously happy dividends.
Strategy 5: Go out on Thursday or Friday night. No matter what your dinner issues are, you’ve earned it.
Click here to download a PDF of Nina’s weekly meal plan (plus shopping list!) and also to see how we applied each of the above strategies.
Above photos shot by Jennifer Livingston.
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Tags:custom meal plan·dinner doula·family dinner·organizing family dinner·weekly meal planning·weekly shopping list
I was having drinks with a few local friends last year when one of them, the mother of a newborn (her first), leaned across the martinis and whispered to me “How come everyone says it goes so fast? I just find it to be the EXACT opposite.” Her face was awash in guilt as soon as she sent these words out there, and quickly hedged. “Oh my God! Is that a horrible thing to think? It’s not like I feel that way all the time.” I was shocked by the statement too — not because she was confessing to what every parent thinks at one point or another, especially during the particular points when the baby is not sleeping — but because she was asking me for advice. How was I suddenly the veteran with a third and fourth grader who had advice to dispense on parenting? What the…? Damn, that went fast!
I told her what I believe to be 100% true: Everything changes when the baby, and therefore the baby’s parents are sleeping. Until then, you can’t be expected to remember where you put your car keys, let alone think straight about the great cosmic meaning of children and happiness. Then I told her my theory about sleeping which I also believe to be 100% true, but might have a harder time backing up with, you know, JAMA studies: Every parent has to deal with one of three sleep handicaps:
- Handicap 1: The baby/toddler will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally shutting his or her eyes.
- Handicap 2: The baby/toddler wakes up in the middle of the night for long stretches, during which time you feel like the loneliest person on earth.
- Handicap 3: The baby/toddler rises before the sun and you are forced to function before you’ve had a cup of coffee.
Each handicap carries its own particular set of tortures, but in my experience, it seems rare that a parent has to deal with two or three at once. (I can already hear the emails of dissent pinging in my inbox.) As we’ve mentioned several million times on this blog, our sleep handicap was always the morning. No matter what we did, for the longest time, we could not figure out a way to get Abby to sleep past 5:30. (How I dreamed of the sevens!) But then we’d go to a friend’s house for dinner and we’d all be eating dessert at 10:00 while their 3-year-old would dart in and of the bedroom every 15 minutes, burying his sleepy bedhead in mom’s lap, until finally his parents, through gritted teeth, would just give up and invite him to join us for a piece of pie.
Our first pediatrician told me that kids crave routines. I like to think this is a fact that one might even find in JAMA. I also like to think that we were so Draconian about our evening routine early on that this is what made it impossible for our daughters to suffer from handicap number 1. Even though we weren’t necessarily eating dinner with them when they were that little, we were always sitting with them. There was always some form of after-dinner event (as full-time working parents, this was the half hour when we attempted to cram in all the “quality time” we felt we missed during the day), then bath, bedtime story, and finally, lights out. On the weekends, we’d let them “watch a movie” (a 10-minute Pixar short; today it’s more like The Danish Poet*, above) because what’s the point of having a routine if you can’t break it every now and then?
As for how to solve handicaps 2 and 3? What do you think I’m some sort of veteran? How should I know?
*Which contains the immortal line: “Kaspar became living proof that some poets are better off happy than sad.”
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Tags:dinner routine·family dinner·family dinner and bedtime·how to have family dinner
I’d like to interrupt the relentless roll-out of pizzas and stews for an important — maybe even obvious — message. A few nights ago I was reading yet another article regurgitating what we probably all know by now about family dinner. This just in: All kinds of great things will happen if you just sit down with your kids to eat dinner. They will bring home straight As, they will be less likely to suffer from depression or eating disorders. They will beg for second helpings of spinach. And, right on cue, the article ended with this line (I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t worry about making a homemade dinner. Have a bowl of healthy whole grain cereal if you have to. It’s not the food that’s important, it’s being together.”
Let me first just say that I of course totally agree with most of this statement. The being-together part, after all, is the whole reason I launched this site. DALS is as much a response to all of us wanting to connect more with our children as it is about those succulent, beautiful eight-minute lamb chops. But if that is all it is about, then there would only be as many posts here as there are brands of nutritious cereal. (Or Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas!) And also, I’m pretty sure we would’ve stopped caring about dinner (cooking it and writing about it) a while ago since a bowl of cereal for dinner is kind of fun if it’s Cereal for Dinner Night. But after too many Cereal For Dinner Nights, it’s just…cereal.
The goal (at least in my house) is to make dinner a ritual, and putting together something that you want to eat — that you are excited to eat — is going to do more for establishing that ritual than just about anything else. If you cook good food, it will build on itself. Your family will look forward to it. You will look forward to it. You will get addicted to eating well and watching your family eat well. (Is it me or do I sound exactly like Amy Chua justifying the self-esteem cycle that results from making your children practice their instruments for three hours a day? You force them to practice, they get better. The better they get the more they want to practice…) Is it essential that you braise an Osso Bucco on a Tuesday night? Of course not! There are all kinds of quick easy recipes on this site that qualify as special. But my point is, I don’t want to dismiss the role of caring about what you cook in this whole equation. The more you care, the more you’ll cook, and the more you cook, the more firmly the family dinner ritual will take hold. It’s probably going to be a long time before my kids recognize in a conscious way that eating a meal with someone who loves them satisfies some deep psychological need. But for now I’m pretty sure they’re psyched to show up just for the noodles. And I don’t have any problem with that.
Thai Chicken with Noodles from Martha Stewart: Killer. Illustration up top is by M. Hafner, from the March 1960 issue of Good Housekeeping.
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Tags:family dinner·how to have family dinner·why family dinner
Let me just start by saying this recipe is not a 30-Minute Meal. Nor is it a One Pot Wonder, a Five Ingredient Dinner, a Fix-it-and-Forget-it Dish or any of the other cute little titles dished up daily in magazines, cookbooks, and, um, blogs exactly like this one. This minestrone, which Pilar first introduced me to in 2004, is not cute. It is messy and demanding and complicated. It involves forethought — you must soak the beans overnight. It involves rinsing and draining and mincing and chopping. It involves immersion blenders and strainers and Dutch Ovens and saucepans. And it involves time. A lot of time. The kind of time you once had on a Sunday afternoon before you had kids to shuttle to birthday parties or basketball games or before you started getting roped into marathon sessions of Monopoly. Which, if you are a certain kind of cook, is what makes the resulting freaking crazy delicious soup all the more special. Because yes, you must spend your entire afternoon in the kitchen making it, but…you get to spend your entire afternoon in the kitchen making it.
Adapted from The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, Giuliano Bugialli
8 ounces dried cannellini beans
1 slice prosciutto or pancetta (vegetarians & vegans: this can be omitted)
1 large red onion, minced
1 celery rib, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 cup Italian parsley
½ cup olive oil
½ small head Savoy cabbage, chopped
1 ½ bunches kale, cleaned and chopped into small pieces
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into small squares
1 cup canned tomatoes, drained and seeded
1 small bunch Swiss chard, stems removed and cut into small pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Soak the dried beans overnight in a bowl of cold water. The next day, drain the beans and cook them in a large pot with 2 quarts of salted water and the prosciutto or pancetta. As the beans absorb water, keep adding enough hot water to maintain about 2 quarts of liquid at the end of the cooking time. Cook for one hour, then let sit on stovetop in pot.
Saute onion, celery, garlic, carrot, parsley, salt and pepper in the olive oil in a Dutch Oven or large stockpot for about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, kale, and potato to the stockpot. Then add tomatoes, smushing them with your hands as you drop them in the pot. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, adding a little bean liquid every now and then if it’s looking dry. Then add Swiss chard.
Remove the prosciutto from the beans. Scoop out about 1 cup of beans with a strainer or slotted spoon and set aside. With a handheld mixer, blend the remaining beans in their pot, then pour bean puree into the stockpot with vegetables, stirring to combine. Simmer together for about 15 minutes more until heated through. When you are ready to serve, add the reserved whole beans. Add salt and pepper.
Ladle soup into bowls and serve with crusty bread, freshly grated Parmesan and a healthy drizzle of good quality olive oil.
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Tags:family dinner·giuliano bugialli·gluten free·gluten free dairy free dinner·minestrone·minestrone recipe·sunday dinner
…to have family dinner: When my kids are 16 and 15 (instead of 8 and 7) and we are dealing with friendship dramas, SATs, sexting episodes, and God only knows what else (Parents of teen-agers: please refrain from telling me what else) dinner will be so firmly established as my family’s 6:30 Magnetic North, that my kids’ hormone-raging, eye-rolling, parent-resenting bodies will be hardwired to come home, sit down, and talk to me anyway. In other words, I will have them right where I want them. (more…)
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Tags:entertaining families·family dinner
I think it’s so awesome when readers come up to me and say “I love your blog. You sound like you have the greatest life.” This conclusion is based on the fact that I regularly…eat porcupine meatballs? That’s a joke, but it’s also kind of serious.
I need to back up for a second. My first job out of college was at a financial consulting firm. The people in my office were very nice (especially my friend Han who called me over to his Sun computer one morning to show me this cool new thing called “The Net”) but I had no idea what I was doing and kept my phone on the “direct-to-voicemail” function all day because I was too nervous to talk to clients. It is a miracle I lasted 14 months there — I hated it. But since I was raised in a certain way (aka TriState Ashkenazi) I was programmed to think of these kinds of jobs (law, medicine, business) as the real jobs. And when you are in a real job, you aren’t necessarily happy all the time. “That’s why it’s called a job,” said one jerky associate (Dartmouth ’92) when I made the mistake of saying that I wasn’t 100% fulfilled compiling Strategic Action Reports for Lazard Freres. (At least I think that’s what I was doing.) I will always remember that conversation, as well as the “informational interview” I had later that year with the mother of a friend of mine who was like the Don Draper of the 80′s. She asked me what made me happy. A lot of things made me happy, but I had just put together a recipe book for my best friend for her birthday (crafted from stolen office supplies!) so I answered “Food.” Ha ha ha. (more…)
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Tags:family dinner·how to have family dinner
I love sharing these kinds of recipes with parents. Doesn’t it look like we cooked up two completely different meals: one for the grown-ups (left) and one for the kids (right)? We didn’t at all. The astute eye will notice that everything you see on the right makes up the meal on the left. It just took a little think-work for Andy to strategically reserve a few pre-approved components from the chopping board before they were tossed into the pot with the steamed deal-breakers, I mean Little Necks.
Spaghetti and Clams
This is so easy and so amazingly delicious. It takes 20 minutes. Twenty minutes!!! If you think your kids will like it without any editing, just pretend the green instructions below don’t exist.
Make spaghetti according to package directions, setting aside plain pasta tossed with olive oil or butter on the kids plates if that’s the way it has to be. In a large stock pot or Dutch Oven set over medium heat, saute 1 chopped shallot, 1 minced garlic clove, a few shakes of red pepper flakes and some freshly ground pepper in olive oil. (Not necessary to salt — the clams are naturally briny.) Add about a dozen and a half fresh clams, a 1/2 cup white wine, and a small bunch of whatever fresh herbs (chopped) you have lying around. (Andy used parsley and basil.) When the clams steam open, add a handful of chopped tomatoes (any shape or color, setting some aside on the kids’ plates if you’d like), some corn off the cob (again, setting some aside) and cook another two or three minutes. Discard any clams that haven’t opened, then toss the whole thing with pasta, making sure to scoop lots of the broth into the bowl. Serve with crusty bread for sopping.
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Tags:family dinner·pasta dinner for kids·spaghetti and clams recipe·spaghetti dinners
The pre-dinner scramble. (Photo by Jenny Livingston.)
Last week on my Babble blog I asked readers what they thought of Michael Ruhlman’s HuffPo rant about parents being too “busy” to cook for their kids. Actually, that was only a subset of the rant. Most of Ruhlman’s anger was directed at food editors, cookbook authors, and Food Network stars (even Jamie!) for giving rise to the 30-minute-meal industrial complex…thereby validating the message that parents are too busy to cook, thereby placing those busy, unimaginative parents at the mercy of the convenient, pre-packaged, get-it-to-the-table-fast world of processed food. (Really? You want to bring Jamie Oliver into this?) I wasn’t surprised that it touched a lot of nerves — and I encourage you to read the entire post as well as the comments that piled up over on Babble — but here on DALS, I feel compelled to write a little more it; or, more specifically, about these two quotes because I can’t stop thinking about them:
“Maybe you don’t like to cook, maybe you’re too lazy to cook, maybe you’d rather watch television or garden, I don’t know and I don’t care, but don’t tell me you’re too busy to cook. We all have the same hours every day, and we all choose how to use them. Working 12-hour days is a choice.”
“..[T]he processed food companies make it easy to blow off cooking for ourselves. And we do so at our peril…. America is too stupid to question whether something is good for it or not (‘Marge, it says snack well right on the box!’). And in the very same way we believe that idiocy, we believe these very same companies telling us how wonderful our lives will be if we buy this low-fat Lean Cuisine because it will save us so much time, only 3 minutes! Used to take seven! You’ve got four extra minutes to play with!”
I’m not crazy about the scolding tone he uses here (parents feel guilty enough without a professionally trained chef rubbing it in, not to mention single parents for whom twelve hour days are actually not a choice) and the assumption that cooking for your family is a categorically pleasant, life-affirming experience is oversimplified to say the least. BUT. BUT. BUT. There was something resonant about the message to me. And (more…)
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Tags:family dinner·Michael Ruhlman
My aunt Patty was the first great home cook I ever knew. She would get up at 5am, run a few miles, come home, make a big pot of coffee, and start making the gooiest, butteriest challah french toast you’ve ever seen. (At holiday time, she made it with egg nog. And she always added a dash of vanilla, a tradition we’ve continued with our own kids.) She’d clean up breakfast, and start in on lunch: maybe a wild rice salad with cranberries, maybe some egg salad sandwiches with onion and celery, maybe some chicken Milanese (she dredged in corn flakes crumbs). She’d clean up lunch, and start in on dinner. She’d stuff roasts with egg and pancetta and marinate butterflied legs of lamb in great, plastic tubs; she’d make fresh ricotta cheesecakes and tiramisu with real lady fingers and freshly whipped cream; and she would always, always turn down any offers of help. “Cooking is my therapy,” she’d say, tossing another pot onto the pile in the sink, and I remember not believing her.
Of all the things Patty would cook for us when we visited, there was one meal I looked forward to more than any other. It was based on a recipe from a woman named Marcella Hazan, a name that meant nothing to me at the time. Patty called it “pork in milk,” and she would make it just for me; it got to the point where I could sniff it out the moment I walked into her house.
“Pork in milk?” I’d say.
“How’d you know?” she’d respond.
When it was ready, she would take the pork out of the pot and slice it, put it on a platter, and bury it in mounds of nutty, slightly disconcerting-looking, sweet-smelling clusters of milk — the remnants of the braising liquid — that she spooned over the top. “Make sure you get enough clusters!” she’d say. “They’re the best part. Do you have enough? Here, take more!” I assumed, because she was Patty and because everything she did in the kitchen appeared to be designed for maximum complexity, that this “pork in milk” was difficult to make.
Turns out, it’s not.
“Pork in milk” is now one of our go-to weekend meals (and also one of the dishes enshrined on our recipe door). Our oldest daughter eats it with clusters, the younger one without, but they both eat it — and happily — which is a victory in and of itself. As for the difficulty: it’s seven ingredients and one pot, with a total hands-on time of maybe five minutes. – Andy
Click to the jump for the recipe.
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Tags:braised pork·family dinner·italian recipes·marcella hazan·pork loin·pork loin braised in milk·pork recipe·pork recipes
(illustration by Laurie Sandell)
Rule 1: If you have a kid under 3, don’t bother.
Tending to a toddler at the table — his milk spilling, his food dropping, his inability to articulate how multidimensional your marinara is — it all takes its toll on the rest of the diners’s satisfaction, especially the cook’s. You won’t be able to concentrate on any kind of conversation or enjoy what you just spent some time preparing, let alone be able to savor your family’s only unplugged moment of the day. You will in fact, only be setting yourself up for failure, potentially triggering a spiral into dark places of self-hatred. That can be hard to recover from.
Rule 2: Push bedtime later.
My kids have always gone to bed late (since we usually get home from work between 6:30-7:00) and logistically I think it’s the most important thing you can do to make life a little easier around the table. The “7:00 Bedtime” parents will probably not be happy with my prescription of ”The 7:30 Dinner,” but if you can swing it, you can most likely give yourself a comfortable 30 minutes to drink a glass of wine, talk to the kids, and get a meal on the table. There are enough things going against you already with this whole endeavor — might as well control the clock. If your kids are starving and you can’t imagine how they will last that long — ply them with a healthy snack at 5:30.
Rule 3: The Two Out of Three Philosophy.
How do you define successful dinner? After editing the food pages of Cookie for so long, I got quite intimate with all the research. Most parents (moms, in this case) call a meal a success if:
- Every member of the family is accounted for and seated.
- There is a wholesome meal on the table.
- Everyone is eating the same wholesome meal.
There are other variables, yes — like if the TV is off and there are no punches thrown between siblings — but the three above are the biggies. This is what I do: If I can honestly say that I’ve hit two of these three truths, then you better believe I’m marking it down in the Successful Family Dinner column on my Good Mother Scorecard. If you find you are hitting all three truths all the time, please contact me — you are a nearly extinct breed and I’d like to conduct some kind of anthropological study on you.
Rule 4: Don’t force yourself to cook every night.
Along the same lower-your-standards lines, my friend Pilar (who was also the editor of Cookie editor and my co-author on Time For Dinner ) has her own set of rules for dinner making. Her whole philosophy is “If I Could Just Make it to Wednesday…” (later shorthanded to simply “Get to Wednesday”) and holds that if you can do your best to cook a good wholesome meal for your kids just til the middle of the week, then you are off the hook for Thursday and Friday. The point is this: We are no longer living in the same world we grew up in — no one expects you to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal every night. But if you are one of those moms who finds it extremely satisfying to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal for your kids, then do it when you can and let it go when you can’t. (By this point in my parenting career shouldn’t I know that telling mothers not to feel guilty is like telling Charlie Sheen not to drink?)
Rule 5: Cook within your culinary comfort zone.
Hopefully you will be getting a lot of ideas from DALS that will expand your recipe repertoire, but when you’re starting out, you should cook what you’re comfortable with. Remember, the name of the game is taking out any variable you can — so really, why would you start with a quinoa pilaf that requires you to hunt down some sort of special summer spinach at the farmer’s market? Start with something you can make without a recipe. Start with an omelette. Or a hamburger or a killer sandwich…or pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes. And once you do decide to try, say, Marcella Hazan’s milk-braised pork loin (oh please please please try it!) do it on a Saturday when you don’t have all the demands of a weeknight.
Rule 6: Follow Dinner: A Love Story.
There are all kinds of reasons not to have family dinner, I know, but please listen to what I have to say (and try what I have to cook). As long as you continue to entertain the option that maybe, just maybe, you’ll sort of, kind of, maybe, try to maybe, attempt to do it someday …I’ll be happy. And so will your family.
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Tags:Dinner·easy dinner recipes·family dinner·how to cook children
…the other spouse will throw all dinner rules out the window. At least, that’s the experience in my house. For whatever reason, when my husband is on the road, our sacred mealtime routine doesn’t seem so sacred anymore. While my kids get take-out or a Trader Joe’s pizza from the freezer, I will get all Prousty with a mammoth bowl of buttered-and-salted Manischewitz egg noodles (the superskinny kind) that I used to regularly wolf down for an after-school snack growing up. My husband does the same thing when I’m out of town or out for the night — his go-to maverick move is cacio e pepe (above) — pappardelle with olive oil, parm, and lots and lots of pepper.
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Tags:cacio e pepe·egg noodles·family dinner·family dinner recipe·family dinner rules·pantry dinner·Trader Joe·Trader Joe's